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Q&A: Sally R. Petersen on self-employment

'Know yourself, the craft and the business'Personal File

Sally R. Petersen, 69, author of The Real American Dream: Creating Independence and Running a One-Person Business, lives in Tigard.She earned a bachelor of arts degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska and a master of science in management from Marylhurst University in Portland. Petersen worked at Tektronix in Portland from 1970 to 1988. At the age of 57, she launched The Write Touch, a one-person business.She also has been a field director for the Campfire Council in Oakland, Calif., and is a past board member of Tri-County United Way. She helped found CareerMakers, a job-search organization, and later served on its board of directors.

Q: What was your chief rationale for starting a one-person business?

It was very simple. I wanted to take control of my working life. It was very much a control issue. I had been in a very large Fortune 500 firm (Tektronix) when it had 26,000 employees worldwide. I was ready to establish something that was mine, where I could be the decision maker and be the one responsible for the success or failure. It's a huge factor, with people that I know, going into a one-person business.

Q: Is it difficult to stay a one-person business?

I didn't find it that way. The common misperception is that you're isolated when you are a one-person business. You need to belong to organizations and talk to other people. You need to have alliances. You can grow your business by forming unofficial alliances where you help each other out.

The tricky part is figuring out how to work with sub-contractors, trading services and figuring ways to expand business without resorting to hiring employees.

Q: What's the largest one-person business?

I know of a consultant that bills well over &

36;1 million a year. That's a huge operation to run alone. I have a friend in California who is a human resources consultant in safety issues. She bills in the upper six-figures.

Q: What sours people on working for someone else?

I don't think it's one thing. It lies in the nature of the person willing to take the risk of what's involved in the one-person business. People skilled in what they do and convinced they can do it very well can arrive at the point where they've had enough of doing something for someone else. Highly creative people, who are able to put their own systems together, can tire of helping other people and corporations meet their objectives.

Q: Are these people more savvy than inexperienced people going into business?

It depends on the attitudes. Do you bounce back after failure? Are you pretty upbeat about life? Can you work alone? Are you self-motivated?

There's nobody else but you, so you had better understand yourself pretty well in order to launch in this direction. Know yourself, the craft and the business around you.

Q: What types of things do you outsource?

You outsource the stuff you hate to do. For instance, in my business as a writer, editor and desktop publisher for 12 years, I outsourced graphic design. In math, I'm really good in single digits. For writers, designers, potters, painters and woodworkers, the math isn't fun.

This is why you need to know yourself. You may want to outsource marketing help.

Q: What can't be done by a one-person business?

Not much. I think a one-person business with enough creativity can do almost anything. Your limitations are activities that require having employees.

I know of a man that repairs ABS systems and air bags, and I think he does it by using the shops of people who contract with him. So he doesn't need all that extensive of equipment.

A woodworker has to outsource stuff too big for him and will rent trucks and hire somebody short-term to help him move it.

One person couldn't run a school district or big manufacturing plant, though.

Q: What suggestions do you have as far as capitalization and overhead?

One of the beauties of the one-person business is that people start with very little overhead. The easiest things to do are consulting, writing and graphic design. Being a photographer is about the easiest. What you need is the equipment do the first job. In my case, it was a computer printer and know-how.

With graphics, it's about the same thing ' a computer, printer and know-how. You can reduce overhead by working at home. Make a list of equipment you want and figure everything you can do without. I don't see how you can run a one-person business without a computer and phone line. You'll need to factor in the equipment required to produce your product or provide your service.

Q: How long will a one-person business last?

The people I've written about in my book have been in business anywhere from seven to eight years to 20-plus. I think it would be the same as for any other business endeavor. If you're right for it and it fills so many of your needs, I think you will stay with it.

You need to have personal goals, too, including control of work life and managing your work schedule and time. You can take vacations, but it requires management and sometimes requires working with a back-up cohort.

Sally Petersen